Sometimes you’ve got to pinch yourself. If someone had said 10 years ago that they were writing a political satire about Donald Trump fighting to stay in the White House after his first term in office by shouting about how the election is “a fraud on the American people” and demanding all vote counting must stop, in the middle of a global pandemic killing over 1,000 Americans a day, I would have told him or her: ‘that sounds a bit far-fetched’.
This is the sort of stuff that the United States would use as justification to invade countries it isn’t allies with, in the name of defending freedom and democracy. Indeed, the ‘international community’ right now would usually be condemning the president of any state in the global south who made such an outlandish attempt to remain in power, and Britain would be first in the queue. Instead, Boris Johnson said “we don’t comment as a UK Government on the democratic processes of our friends and allies”. That cowardly remark is Johnson at his most honest – the UK bangs the democracy drum only when it’s dealing with weak states in the global system, or to undermine its enemies.
Much to the fury of Trump and his supporters, the vote counting is continuing, and it looks increasingly likely that Joe Biden is going to just about get over the line. Legal actions are being launched by the Republicans in tight races like Pennsylvania, so this could drag on for weeks or months. To what extent Trump will attempt to dig in and build the conspiracy theory that the election has been stolen is unclear, but even if he does eventually step down, many millions of the President’s supporters will now have been radicalised by Trump’s reaction to the election. Forces much more dedicated to far-right ideology than The Donald will be given new energy, and not just in the US. The images of people in MAGA hats holding “stop the vote” placards and trying to get into vote counts have been beamed around the world.
These forces can be defeated, but lessons have to be learned about how to divide the far-right from the broad pool of people who can be pulled in by them. The worst mistake that could be made right now is to assume the organised far-right and those who vote for it are one and the same – 68.6 million (and counting) Americans are not fascists because they voted for Trump. The President has won more votes in 2020 than 2016, and according to exit polls the only group he has not increased his support amongst is white men. African Americans (11 per cent), Hispanics (31 per cent) and Asian Americans (30 per cent) all voted for Trump by 3 per cent more than in 2016. They clearly aren’t all white supremacists, but they may well be people who are a bit sick of their vote being taken for granted on the basis of their ethnicity. Not being Trump isn’t enough, and shouldn’t be – you have to be for something; to unite people with a compelling and universal vision of what change should look like.
This has been critical in fighting fascism historically, which has always swelled its ranks through “the politics of cultural despair”, as one study of the philosophical ideas behind the rise of fascism in Germany by historian Fritz Stern described it. Stern emigrated to the US as a child in 1938, and said in January 2016, months before he died: “Sometimes I bemoaned the fact that I had to grow up amid the disintegration of a democracy; now, at the end of life, I am having to experience again the struggles of democracy.”
To win the struggles for democracy, we should take heed of the lessons of the past.
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